There are mosques in towns all over China, but the most concentrated signs of Islamic belief are found in the western province of Xinjiang. The region is home to most of China’s Uyghurs, a Muslim people linguistically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese (the ethnic majority in China). The majority of Uyghurs live in the southwest of the province, in oasis cities that skirt the edges of the Taklamakan Desert. This is the setting for Lisa Ross’s Living Shrines of Uyghur China, a book of photographs a decade in the making, whose subject is the shrines to folk saints (in Uyghur, mazar) found throughout the region.
Lisa Ross’s luminous photographs are not our usual images of Xinjiang. One of China’s most turbulent areas, the huge autonomous region in the country’s northwest was brought under permanent Chinese control only in the mid-twentieth century. Officially, it is populated mostly by non-ethnic Chinese — Turkic peoples like Uighurs (also spelled Uyghurs), Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, as well as Mongolians and even Russians — and its population has long had difficult relations with Beijing. In 2008, 2009, and 2012, Xinjiang was the site of bloody protests.
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See also: Living Shrines of Uyghur China
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is China’s largest province. It came under Chinese rule in 1949. With few exceptions, artists and foreign researchers have been denied meaningful access to the rural areas in Xinjiang. Ross’s close working relationships with a Uyghur anthropologist and a French historian focusing on Central Asian Islam have guided her more than eight-year exploration in the region. The extensive body of work which Living Shrines of Uyghur China – commencing on February 8th, 2013 at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York – draws upon is rare in that it captures a time and place that is rapidly modernizing and transforming.
Read More: Living Shrines of Uyghur China